As another critical film, "Eating Our Way To Extinction," hits theatre screens, this time pressing for the farming of animals (including fish) to be abandoned in favor of a plant-based diet, I can’t help wondering why aquaculture continues to struggle to get its message across.
Andrew Mallison is the principal at seafood consultancy FishThink. He is the former CEO of Global Aquaculture Alliance and IFFO The Marine Ingredients Organisation. In addition, he has held roles at the Marine Stewardship Council and retailer Marks & Spencer.
The makers of the film, and presumably the narrator, Kate Winslet, believe climate change would be mitigated by reducing carbon emissions from animal farming. And they’re right. But why throw salmon farming into the “bad boys” list when research by academics such as Ray Hilborn at the University of Washington, demonstrate that greenhouse gas emissions from fish farming (and wild fisheries) are so much lower than farmed land animals?
(For the time being, let’s set aside land-based salmon. When the message of the film is to become vegetarian, it wouldn’t matter how climate-friendly farming animals was if you disagree with eating meat on principle).
A look at the sponsors and endorsers of this film gives a good idea that climate change is just a convenient cover. This illustrates that most disinformation has a motive.
In his book, “How To Talk To A Science Denier,” Lee McIntyre talks about how there is often a motive when facts are challenged or disputed. He describes how the tobacco industry managed to delay smoking bans for decades and the current anti-vaccination movements may be fueled by Russia, at least according to the New York Times.
Admittedly, trying to communicate positive stories is not easy. Sensationalism sells, both the copy and the advertising, and social media has amplified the ability for disinformation to be spread, creating a step-change in the ability for us to be lied to that we haven’t seen since steam-driven printing presses were invented.
Aquaculture is far from perfect, but it has facts on its side and is without doubt the best way of producing animal protein, using the measure of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As McIntyre points out in his book, part of the answer is the difference between doubt and distrust. You can persuade doubters that it’s OK by providing evidence but, if they don’t trust you, whatever evidence is submitted won’t make any difference to their beliefs.
So does aquaculture have a trust problem? Well, maybe.
Land animals have been present in our minds and society for a long time. Baby farm animals are cute and are petted by children. Land farmers have been appreciated for their hard work and have earned trust over centuries. In the same way, wild fisheries also have earned a position of trust. From personal experience in focus groups, I know the respect commercial fishermen receive (and deserve) from consumers.
The aquaculture that feeds western markets with farmed salmon, shrimp and other popular seafood, however, is typically not given that pass. Aquaculture is a young industry and hasn’t developed the presence of traditional agriculture. What it does have is some often regurgitated failings: critics with agendas to sell books, push for vegetarian diets or fund their campaigns don’t have to look far for ammunition. They also often conveniently overlook that many faults now have been rectified or are not representative.
In this era of distrust and amplification, audiences are more than willing to believe what they see and hear without questioning an author or filmmaker’s motives.
So where does aquaculture go from here?
First, let’s earn trust through showing responsible aquaculture is possible and available – and show the faces behind the sustainable production.
Certification schemes have a role to play here but an eco-label is not of interest to those who already distrust an industry or company. Instead, certification schemes and industry bodies need to consistently and persistently demonstrate that we are the modern equivalent of the fictional farmer in the children's song "Old McDonald," the one who had a farm, and on that farm he had a salmon.
We need to do more to show the human side of fish farming, how farmers care for their animals and what the industry means to rural communities.
We have social media at our disposal to post videos, celebrate achievements and best practicesand engage with our audience. Once we have earned trust, we can then point to the many facts that prove farmed fish really is the food of future.